IROQUOIS FALLS - The Abitibi Eskimos scored a 2-1 win over the Cochrane Crunch at the Jus Jordan Arena Saturday night in the first skirmish in the Battle of Highway 11.
For the Eskimos, it was their second 2-1 victory over a top NOJHL East Division team in the span of 24 hours, following Friday night’s win over the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners at the McIntyre Arena (see Page B2).
And just like Friday night, the Eskimos spotted the visitors a 1-0 first period lead and then calmly waited for their opportunities.
Defenceman Dustin Deugau’s unassisted goal 2:52 into the opening frame, his first of the season, put Cochrane in front Saturday night.
The Calgary native’s wrist shot from the left point found its way through a screen in front of Eskimos goalie Braddock Baalerud and into the back of the net.
The goalie, making just his second start in the NOJHL, shook off the goal and stone walled the Crunch the rest of the way.
Brenden Locke got the Eskimos back on even terms 14:23 into the second period when he scored his second goal of the season and then Brady Clouthier netted the game winning goal, his sixth of the season, 8:04 into the final period.
It was Locke’s second game back after serving a two-game suspension and his first goal since his return.
“(Joshua) DeJulio got the puck at the point and he stayed calm and made a slick pass off the boards and it just got to me in front and I just went backhand,” he said.
“It was pretty much all DeJulio.”
The line of Locke, Clouthier and Ryan Attwood got both Eskimos goals, but they could have had even more, with a little luck.
“We have developed a little bit of chemistry early in the season and we have just been building off that,” Locke said.
“We have been communicating and that is the way that we have had success, so far.”
Locke is happy to be back on the ice and contributing to the Eskimos’ recent success.
“It feels really, really good, because it is hard watching the boys got out there when you just want to give it your all, just play and sacrifice for the team,” he said.
“I have been playing with a lot more energy since I came back. It is just great to be back on the ice.”
Even though the Eskimos and the Crunch have just played one game, Locke is convinced that the rivalry has been firmly established.
“Their fans are going to be coming to our games and our fans are going to be going to their games,” he said.
“So, it just creates a great atmosphere for us and get us more in the game and makes it more intense.”
While there were plenty of hits, the game never really got chippy and neither side resorted to any cheap stuff.
There was a little talk between the two squads, as you might expect in a rivalry game.
“We tried to keep that to a minimum and tried to stay disciplined,” Locke said.
“There were a few exchanges of words out there, but I am not going to tell you what was said because what happens on the ice stays on the ice.”
Locke is looking forward to the remaining nine regular season games against the Crunch.
“It is going to be fun, but it is going to be tough,” he said.
Ryan Leonard, coach, general manager and owner of the Crunch was pleased to see so many Crunch fans in the stands at the Jus Jordan Arena, but a little disappointed his boys couldn’t produce a better result.
“I was not overly pleased with our forwards tonight,” he said.
“I felt we let the fans of Cochrane down tonight. Guys like (Dustin) Cordeiro, (Cody) Gratton, (Josh) Racek, (Reed) Gregory, (Aviv) Milner, where are these guys in the big games? I hate to point guys out, but you notice Locke’s out there scoring goals, all their big guys are scoring goals in big games and we are not scoring goals in big games.
“We were still missing all of those defencemen, but defence wasn’t the issue. They were playing great.
“Tonight our goalie and our defence were awesome, but our forwards didn’t show up to play.
“We have 27 goals for now in six games, but only two of them against teams that have winning records.
“It doesn’t say much for our hockey club right now. It is gut check time for some of these guys and reality check.
“We played Sudbury and we lost 2-1 and only managed one goal, we played Abitibi tonight and 2-1 again and only manage one goal, then we play the Powassans and the Mattawas and score six, seven, eight, nine goals.
“Nobody wants to pay the price in front of the net. It is hard to win hockey games like that. We have a lot of perimeter guys and nobody wants to get dirty in front of the net for rebounds.
“That third period alone, we got great shots on net, but there was nobody there to put the big rebounds in that came right out to the middle.
“Everybody wants to sit along the boards and cherry pick, do whatever they have got to do and try to be fancy, instead of getting getting dirty and scoring goals.
“They waited for their opportunities and they pounced on them. The second goal, our guy had their guy in check and instead he gave up and came off for a line change instead of finishing, grabbing the guy and picking him up like he is supposed to. That is how you lose hockey games.
“I am not really mad, but I am not happy with how we are performing when we are under pressure. We don’t dig down deep enough.
“You can’t be pleased, as a coach, when your big guys don’t show up against good teams.”
Eskimos coach and general manager Paul Gagne was pleased with how well his team executed the game plan again Saturday night.
“We knew they were going to shoot lots,” he said.
“They had 45 shots on net tonight and last night (against the Mattawa Blackhawks) they had 70 shots.
“We gave them some big opportunities at times, but we really did play tight defence.
“We didn’t give them much. The neutral zone was good. They had a lot of icings, a lot of long passes.
“We played some decent hockey tonight, definitely.”
For the second-straight game Gagne was impressed with the play of Baalerud.
“We had solid goaltending, two games in a row,” he said.
“He is on a high, now the thing is he has got to maintain it.”
Unlike Friday night, Gagne would not say whether or not Baalerud’s strong play would earn him the start in the Eskimos next game — Tuesday night at the Jus Jordon Arena when they again host the Gold Miners.
“We will wait and see,” he said.
“We are going to have a couple of days off here and then the game against Kirkland Lake, so we have a couple of days to digest it.”
Saturday night was Gagne’s first look at the Crunch and he was impressed by what he saw.
“You know what, they have speed,” he said.
“We know a little bit of their game plan is defensive zone off the plexiglass and play in the neutral zone, so after a while I think we picked it up quite early, but they do have some explosive players there and you have to be careful.
“And compliments to their goalie (Troy Paquette). Their goalie made a big difference. It could have easily been a 5-1, or a 5-2 game.
“We had some great opportunities, so kudos goes to their goalie.”
The Eskimos next game will be Tuesday night, when they host the Gold Miners at the Jus Jordan Arena.
The Crunch will return to action on Thursday night, when the Blind River Beavers visit the Tim Horton Event Centre.